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'Treatment' for Couch Potatoes?

March 6, 2008 By:
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Michelle Forbes and Gabriel Byrne Series photos by Claudette Barius/HBO
The doctor will seize you now.

In a way, that is what "In Treatment" does; it seizes the viewer as soon as he steps through the doctor's door, grabs him by his id and shakes loose the Prozac from his pockets.

"In Treatment" is in keeping with HBO's "in" status as comedic iconoclast and dramatic dreammaker. But they've taken it a step further this time; it's not just TV, it's teasingly international as the in-house network has gone beyond its borders to make "In Treatment" a treat worthy of hangups and hamantashen.

The five-times-a-week TV treatment of the weak and wary, attended to by a therapist with his own problems, has the cable network wired into an Israeli hit of the same name and format.

Indeed, the series, now into week six of treating sickness with scrip scripted for TV, has moved Israel from the patient's anteroom to the forefront of medical miracles: "B'tipul," as it's known to Israeli TV addicts, has injected a far larger audience with its modern-day solutions for social malaise, trading Sinai for the cyanide of an American society ill-suited to cope with its emotional emetics.

And the episodes -- many of which have been passported to travel without changes -- are not lost in translation. Hummus and heartbreak seem to be couched in universal terms after all.

And while Dr. Paul Weston is a western version of Israel's Reuven Dagan, he digs into problems with the energy and endless commitment of his countryish counterpart, himself a product of a land scarred by war and scorned by its neighbors.

Around Hagai Levi hangs the honor of original creator and producer, whose treatment of "In Treatment" has psyched out a whole nation of American TV viewers once so attuned to the psychosis of "Sopranos" and the obsessive-compulsive-disorder fixes on designer pumps that made "Sex and the City" so unlikely a series to have anyone fill its shoes.

With its emphasis on "One doctor. Five sessions. Five nights a week," "In Treatment" inculcates its following with the sense that panaceas for some are placebos for others.

But "Treatment" is so much more than TV therapy for couch potatoes. Fifty-minute hours never went by so quickly. And so much has to do with the time put in by its original creator, now a co-exec producer of the American version.

Talk is cheap -- but at $150 an hour? Or is that shekels? "Israel's [version] is much more direct and aggressive," says Levi, busy editing the sabra scripts of a second season even as the American actors (Melissa George, Blair Underwood, Mia Wasikowska, Michelle Forbes, Josh Charles, Embeth Davidtz and Gabriel Byrne as Weston, with Dianne Wiest as his worthy shrink wrapper) angst up the atmosphere on HBO.

"It is more explicit. In fact, Reuven is such an Israeli guy; it's maybe something in his temperament, but he is."

Taking the series temperature doesn't matter whether it's in fahrenheit or celsius; phobias float at the same degree.

"The difference is not in the story -- they're very much the same -- but in the way people talk," says Levi.

He should talk; indeed, he has every reason to be proud of the parade of praise headed his way. Will Americans buy polar opposites? The differences between the twin series with distinct personalities "is in a series of little details."

Indeed, it's not just God who is in the details: "It's also therapy," says Levi with a laugh.

The split personalities of American and Israeli TV are easy to see: "Israel is not a rich industry," says Levi of the light load "In Treatment" carries in the land of milk and honey using "a very cheap format."

But it's rich mining the wealth of problems that plague the perplexed. There was a time, of course, not that long ago, when therapy's image in this country was in need of its own therapy, when psychiatric distress was met with sighs of intolerance from those who considered mental health just another American mind game played with rusty rules of engagement.

That bitter pill to swallow goes down easier now: Lately, the U.S. has become more "me"-oriented, investing in introspection as a means of self-worth.

But Israelis have long been "open-minded," says Levi of the nation's mental-health needs, finding talking therapeutic.

No argument there: "Israelis like to talk about things," he says --although some cities, such as Tel Aviv, are tellingly more open than others. "Outside [big] cities, therapy can still be a stigma," notes the producer, who's been in treatment himself, bringing life lessons from both sides of the couch.

"I've been in therapy most of my life," says Levi, who holds a degree in psychology from Bar-Ilan University.

"It's been a very important part of my life."

The series' patients impart that notion, too. Indeed, patience is its own reward for viewers. "Anybody who's been in treatment would die to be a fly on the wall of their [psychiatrist]," he says with a laugh.

In a way, Levi is bugging it through this TV office. His success building a series focused on "a place where there are no secrets" is no secret in the industry. Indeed, he has been called upon to create other works.

But inherent in "In Treatment" -- and, naturally, in "B'tipul" -- is the pull of the painful and the power of the palliative. "It is a very interesting place," says Levi of the therapist's office, "with its quiet and sincerity."

Prozac, but no prevarication. "No one lies in therapy," reasons Levi.

But, if they need to, there's a couch to cushion the pain. "It is a sacred place where so many truths are revealed."

Truth be told, the Israeli series was sparked by Levi's wondering what "goes on behind the scenes, what is in a therapist's mind?" The mindset of the series is a major one focusing on showing how therapists "feel strongly about their patients. That is the most important part of the series."

And if it imparts important messages worldwide -- other countries are making appointments to schedule their own versions -- that is no accident, Levi has learned. "I felt from the beginning that mental problems can be very universal, which is why we deal with archetype problems" on the series.

But, shock of shocks, therapy may be in need of its own treatment, he adds. "I'd say that therapy is close to its end."

This is no "the end is near" in a paranoid sense but a practical position. "Two things threaten therapy," claims Levi, citing "pharmacology, which has become more precise, and spirituality and religion, which have served as a replacement for many people facing problems."

Face it, he says; it hits home as well, where "lots of people in Israel visit India to seek solutions or turn to Kabbalah."

And if the mind snaps at the thought that a string bracelet can solve major mental problems at the flick of a wrist, there are some for whom SSRI stands for Spirituality and Sustenance are Religious Issues.

Such lofty ideas and Zoloft prescriptions as soul antidotes to talk therapy? Whatever its future, being "In Treatment" has been very good for the Israeli producer.

But even he needs a break now and then from sound stage sessions, which go on long into the night. Sound advice to feel Jungian than springtime? Hang the shingle, he says, of getting away: some R & R is just what this script doctor self-prescribes.

Take one respite with a glassy waterscape? Time is up.

"I'm going to take a good, long vacation in Thailand," says Levi of his own ephemeral Freudian slip away from the TV mental marathon he's run so successfully.


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